11/30/2009 11:42AM

She Won't Be Back



The Hollywood Park crowd booed Arnold Schwarzenegger and cheered for Zenyatta on Sunday afternoon, but that's about par for the course. Heroes and villains are always ripe targets for public theater, where there is very little tolerance for nuance. In California, Schwarzenegger is the mega-rich actor with the funny accent who gets the blame for the state's current 12 1/2 percent unemployment rate and most of the forest fires. Zenyatta, even in retirement, is still the most popular Southern California athlete not named Kobe. The Governator, limping on his bum ski knee, was gracious in the face of the racetrack boo-birds as he said nice things about the big mare (through a rinky-dink Hollywood sound system that cut in and out), and presented Ann and Jerry Moss with the governor's Golden Bear Trophy for achievement. Moss, gracious to a fault, took special note of Hollywood Park as the track where Zenyatta "lived and rewarded us with some incredible races."

Then, emerging from the mix of cheers and governor-aimed grumblings, the chant emerged, like a rally at  a grove of endangered California redwoods. It broke your heart:

"Save Hollywood Park! Save Hollywood Park! Save Hollywood Park!"

There were fans, a handful leaning over the edge of the balconies overlooking the winner's enclosure, who were pleading with Schwarzenegger to do something to stop the apparently inevitable leveling of the racetrack for development by the Bay Meadows Land Company. Like he could, short of declaring the place an historical landmark, or buying it as a state park. As with most displays of impromptu public protest, the chants were mostly sloughed off as background noise. Jack Liebau, the Hollywood Park president who lorded over the demolition of Bay Meadows racetrack, grinned in the face of the chanters, bemused by their sentiments, as Zenyatta walked back to her barn.

"I don't see how," said R.D. Hubbard, when asked if he thought Hollywood Park could be saved. Hubbard was at the track to watch his colt Black Bear Island run in the Hollywood Derby (he finished eighth). As a former owner of Hollywood Park who battled the California legislature for reduced takeout and expanded gaming privileges, Hubbard should know. "The whole racing industry out here is in trouble," Hubbard added, "getting squeezed on one side by the Indian tribes and by unions on the other."

There seems to be no end to the fickle twists of California racetrack ownership. While Hubbard reigned, he was roundly reviled for converting Marjorie Everett's ugly behemouth of a building--originally christened the Cary Grant Pavilion and hooked awkwardly to the southwest end of the racetrack--into a card casino. He was criticized for such overtly sexist gimmicks as the shooter girls who ran drinks and bets while wearing short-shorts and shot-glass bandoliers ("What's wrong with bein' sexy?"--Nigel Tufnel, Spinal Tap). Hubbard even gets credit/blame for the night racing idea that prompted a horsemen's revolt and triggered the bitter division of the California HBPA into separate owner and trainer organizations.

Hubbard's moves seem tame, almost quaint, by today's desperate standards. Horsemen today would race at midnight if it would make a difference, and they pray in unison for the day slot machines rattle in the clubhouse. As for a little flesh, well, R.D.'s scenery made him look like a monk compared to what Frank Stronach has trotted out at various Santa Anita events, including bikini contests in January. And when he sold Hollywood Park, in 1999, Hubbard sold the racetrack to a racetrack company--Churchill Downs, Inc. CDI, in turn, sold out to a land developer that was already in the process of turning Bay Meadows into offices, shops and condos.

These days, Hubbard is fighting some of the same old fights in New Mexico, where his Ruidoso Downs racetrack and casino is beating its head against Native American casino competition. He has threatened to move the track's operation from the scenic surroundings of the Lincoln National Forest south to the town of Las Cruces, the second-largest population center in the state.

"I could move and make $12 million a year or stay there and lose $2 million, if we don't get some kind of relief from the legislature," Hubbard said.

Ruidoso had its own special parade in September when Kentucky Derby winner Mine That Bird, owned by New Mexicans, paraded before the crowd on the afternoon of the All American Futurity. That was a pretty good day, just as the Zenyatta parade on Sunday engendered goodwill and an announced crowd of just under 10,000, tops of the meet. Sorry to say, though--one day and one horse won't save anything, let alone Hollywood Park.

As for Zenyatta, she was her usual splendid, dramatic self, hitting her marks with casual precision as she loped past the stands under exercise rider Steve Willard, whose age (66) was proudly announced by Jerry Moss. Trainer John Shirreffs stood off to one side, as usual, having exhausted his capacity for public spectacle in the winner's circle after the Breeders' Cup Classic, when he tossed his trademark Mill Ridge cap to the crowd (he has a lifetime supply). Zenyatta was led by Mario Espinoza into the winner's circle, and Willard was replaced by Mike Smith, who hiked up the left iron and posed for another round of photographs. Zenyatta pawed, the crowd oohed and ahhed, and then she headed back to the barn, with Willard's left leg dangling. He didn't want to fuss further with Big Mama's tack, but no way would Grandpa Steve be caught dead riding that short.

This was Zenyatta's second "farewell" at Hollywood Park--she paraded on closing day last summer--and she has one more adios to go on opening day at Santa Anita, on Dec. 26. These are nice events, but they are also reminders of the great hole she will leave in the fabric of the sport. Commencing next season, California racing will enter the era to be known as A.Z., and the question lingered...Was there anyone in the crowd who wouldn't trade Hollywood Park for another year of Zenyatta?